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19th Century

Of course it’s Louise May Alcott’s ‘Little Women’ – with the wonderful Jo March (who should have married Laurie) being a splendid role model for any aspiring writer who also likes to have a romance in her life. Curl up with it – sip tea and eat a warm mince pie and know that everything turns out fine.

No Christmas list complete without Dickens – the man, they now say, who invented Christmas – but not ‘A Christmas Carol’ – ‘The Pickwick Papers’ has a wonderful Christmas chapter – logs a-blaze, punchbowls and goodwill to all men (and women, I hope). Read it and you will instantly feel warm on the snowiest of nights.

And the humour and fun (and romance) of Anthony Trollope’s ‘Christmas at Thompson Hall’ – with lovely Christmas delights and people falling in love – amusing and happy. That’s what we need.


Margaret Atwood’s rewriting of Shakespeare’s The Tempest ‘Hag Seed’ is a very good one to settle down with – her usual beady eye and her usual humour and irony mix into a very satisfying read for the Christmas period. Or failing that ‘The Heart Goes Last’ which is fun, and should make you think twice about the world of robotics.

If you want a snow-bound whodunnit, Martin Cruz Smith’s ‘Stalin’s Ghost’ should crack it for you. Moscow is snowbound, the ghost of Stalin appears on the underground – and Arkady Renko – whom you may have fallen for in ‘Gorky Park’ all those years ago, is back and just as out of kilter with his superiors as ever.

And, of course, there must be an English Country House murder mystery – so pick a Christmas Agatha Christie – ‘Hercule Poirot’s Christmas’ where a nicely savage murder and a suspiciously unmournful family gives the detective a bit of a problem.

Short stories are A Good Thing at Christmas, and Jo Jo Moyes ‘Paris For One’ should do it. Just enough time to read a couple of the stories in between feasting and drinking bouts.

And for the brains – there is always the ‘Penguin Book of Puzzles’ to work off some of the fat surrounding the little grey cells. Or to make that irritating know-all in the family pipe down.


My usual routine has been shot to pieces by having a bunion removed and being encumbered by an enormous boot still occupying my lower leg and foot – which means I can’t do hands free going up the stairs. So, I can’t carry a tray with tea things up to my bedroom early in the morning. That was the time I used to answer emails and write blogs and do anything else that wasn’t The Servant Questionto do with writing a book. The prelude to the day. This, of course, is when you miss being rich and privileged – because I find myself thinking – as I drink my tea in the kitchen on cold November mornings and staring mournfully at what must be one of the ugliest surgical appliances ever devised (though its benefits are legion) – that a servant would be nice.

This thought has probably come about because, in the times when I do my duty by the foot and lie down, and try not to think of England (because I can’t get out in her and enjoy her), I’ve been listening to the quasi-biography of Princess Margaret by Craig Brown. This was recommended to me by one of my more cutting-edge writer friends, whom I won’t name because it might destroy him, but he recommended it as his ‘dirty little secret’ after I confessed to mine of taking three or four unread Spectator magazines on holiday with me every year- not something a dyed-in-the-wool liberal leftie is supposed to embrace.

Anyway – Princess Margaret is brought to life in an extraordinarily vivid, sometimes horrible, sometimes saddening, sometimes shocking, way – and none more so than when her footman spills the beans about his life with her. Never mind bringing up the morning tea-tray: To have a servant with whom there is no compunction about keeping him up at night so that, when you are tired of the television and too snuggled up on the sofa with your lover to get up and turn it off (no remote controls in those days), you ring for him to come and turn it off for you – is – let’s face it – indulgence beyond the call of his duty and her good manners. It makes me think of Kim Jong Un or Grace Mugabe or any spoilt and power-mad creature under the sun. And it also makes me think how very, very lucky we were that Margaret Rose’s sister, Elizabeth Alexandra Mary – came first.

On the other hand – would I like a servant, really? The Princess’s footman watched her every move beadily and then told the world all about it in a book. And much as we – or certainly, I – find his commentary both fascinating and repellent – I can’t think of anything worse than my quips and quirks being published for posterity. I mean, this morning, for example, I swore very lustily at the front door. It had not done anything. It had merely been a front door doing what a front door is supposed to do – impede the progress of either people on the way out or people on the way in. Which is what, in its role as front door and guardian of my estate, it did to me. And if I was determined to be offensive then it was my lack of mobility that should have received the – may I say – rich and colourful swear words that rent the air, not the poor old front door. I ever I was drawn to share this moment with the world (which, of course, I would never do) the world would have every reason to condemn me for unjustifiable treatment of an inanimate object, monumental insensitivity – and the possibility that I am of unsound mind. Happily, since I do not have a servant hanging around, no-one will ever know…

The bright dawn will come. Once more the tea-tray will be carried up the stairs by its owner – and the ritual will be restored. Can’t wait.


Well – yes – the silence was due to my having been away on the Island of Kerkyra (I think it was the Italians who called it Corfu) and not a Durrell in sight, alas – nor a nymph being chased by Poseidon (nor yours truly being chased by Poseidon) for this is the island on which that naughty old sea-god imprisoned his unwilling nymph of the same name. Oh those gods. Really! But such was my delight that I – after going to the Greek islands for my week’s R&R every year for the last dozen years – have been taught a lesson: the less you pay the more you get.

This time, the purse being what it was, I settled for a 2* hotel, right on the beach at Dassia and called, prosaically the Dassia Beach Hotel (look it up) – it had no fancy spa or fancy bars or fancy evenings of mind bashing ‘entertainment’ (you know those – when a troupe of tired looking individuals turns up in ‘Greek’ dress and performs unspeakable things to music for hours on end) but it had balconies that looked out straight on to the glorious Ionian Sea and the gentle mountains beyond – chairs and tables from which to let the view do its work – the friendliest management and staff – a bar with a restaurant terrace directly overlooking the beach – tavernas and shops within a few minutes walk – and – yes – it had a ‘fridge in the room. What was missing? No pool. Is all. In that tranquil sea, with a bathing platform stretched out if you wanted it, or a little shingle beach if not – and free sun loungers (admittedly one or two a bit rickety but most held up well) – who needed a pool?

Yes – the rooms were basic – the plumbing a little old and the shower functional – but it all worked. And the rooms were cleaned every day. You really could not ask for more. I got on so well with the woman who cleaned every day that when I left to come home – she kissed me on both cheeks and told me to come again (I think this proves, friends, that I am a clean and neat user of hotel rooms) – and the owner – a fine and fair looking woman who ran the place with absolute efficiency – actually told me that I should have asked to keep my room for the three hours betwixt vacating it at the usual hour (noon) and when my taxi arrived. I’ve only ever, in posh hotels, either been refused to continue use, or asked to pay a fortune for the privilege. I never thought to ask. This was not throughput – this was Service.

While sunbathing I read three books – the wonderful Margaret Atwood’s ‘The Heart Goes Last’ – funny and frightening; ‘Barchester Towers’ – the second in the Trollope series (read by Timothy West deliciously well) his satire still works sharp as ever; And – even more wonderful than these – Elizabeth Strout’s ‘My Name Is Lucy Barton’ which rocked my soul with its understanding of how it is when you do well in life but carry the shadow of coming from poverty (poverty of love as well as poverty of the parental purse) – it made me smile, it made me cry, and it made me want to write to her and tell her that she is AMAZING. I also finished off ‘The Wonder’ by Emma Donoghue which was nicely placed in 19C Ireland – and ended up happily. Good.

Can I just add, though I know this post is long, that the sea bass I had one evening at at taverna called, imaginatively, ‘The Greek Restaurant’ on the main drag, was the best I have ever had – anywhere. Now happy to be home, much restored.


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